Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads

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November 15th 2011
Published: November 15th 2011
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THE LONG RIDE TO INLE was about as uncomfortable as it gets. Having booked tickets only the night before our seats were way in the back of the bus and they did not recline, which meant that the guy’s head from the seat in front of me may as well have been laying in my lap. Like really, I could have brushed my fingers through his hair and sang him a lullaby. The road was so bumpy that anytime you tried to lay your head against the window it was abruptly thrown in the opposite direction and then back towards the window with amazing force. The heat was stifling. Sleeping was impossible. Around 1am we stopped at a brightly lit rest stop (think Christmas lights and fake palm trees) for what we thought was a routine bathroom break. We de-boarded and make the doomed walk to the back of the building to the infamous squatter toilets. (I’m cringing at the memory even while writing this). We re-emerged from our black holes to find that our bus was no longer where it had let us out. Panic. Did it leave without us? Here? In the middle of nowhere? Where would we sleep? Our bags were on the bus, we had nothing with us. After searching frantically for a few minutes we concluded that the bus had parked in a lot across the street and all the passengers and drivers were inside the restaurant eating. At 1:40am we climbed back onto the bus and settled into our seats hoping for a few hours of sleep. Just then the neon lights went on and the tv started blasting Burmese music videos. Sleep would have to wait. We arrived dirty and exhausted to the small village of Nyaungshwe (the closest village to Inle Lake) around 6am and waited in the lobby of our hotel until 10am to check in.

Nyaungshwe is a peaceful little village located on the banks of the beautiful Inle Lake. Everyone in the community is connected to the lake in some way and many of their livelihoods depend on it. They either live on the lake, work on the lake, or make a living off the tourism that it draws. Dark green mountains hover over the town on one side and the lake’s blue water sparkles on the other. We spent our first day here catching up on sleep and walking around the dusty streets. The following day we rented bicycles and explored the countryside. We had the bumpy road to ourselves save for a few wooden carts led by ox and an occasional person bathing in the streams. We passed stupas, streams and fields of tall, wispy grass. After an hour or so we followed signs down a side road to the Red Mountain winery and suddenly we were transported to Napa valley - sipping wine and staring out at the vineyard’s grape fields. With red tinted lips we resumed our ride and soon found ourselves in another small village, Mine Thauk. We arrived just in time to see dozens of children with thanaka smeared faces spill out of the school yard and line up at the water’s edge to wait for their parents to come pick them up. One by one their parents arrived by canoe and swept them away to their stilted homes. A local man offered to give us and our bikes a ride to the other side of the lake from where we could resume our bike ride back to Nyaungshwe. We decided to take him up on it and thus got our first glimpse of the floating world that is Inle Lake. Entire communities sprout up out of the water on stilts. Instead of roads there are canals that connect people to stores, markets and temples all of which are built on the water. Fisherman paddle by using their legs as oars. It is a magical place.

The next morning we woke up early for a full day tour of the lake. We hired a young Burmese guy, Myo to drive us around on a long, wooden boat. It was one of my favorite days of the trip so far. The sky was the most perfect shade of blue with a handful of puffy clouds that reflected in the water like a painting. After floating through the wonderland for a bit we stopped at the market of the day which was located on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. Ladies and men in straw hats sold bright colored vegetables, exotic fruits, spices, pottery, thanaka bark, jewelry and loads of handicrafts. After an hour or so we floated onward. Throughout the day Myo took us to several artisan workshops located out in the middle of the lake. At each place they welcomed us in to watch the process of making their craft. Although these shops were obviously set up for tourism and there was an always an opportunity to buy something afterward it didn’t feel pushy or forced. In fact, the people were incredibly friendly and relaxed. The first place we stopped at was a silk and lotus weaving shop. We got to walk around a small open air room and watch the entire process of silk and lotus weaving. In one quick motion a women picked up a small green branch, snapped it in half and pulled several thin fibers out of it. A woman next to her collected the fibers and rolled them together by hand to form a thin thread. Behind her sat a woman who spun these fibers into a usable thread with an old fashioned spinning wheel. Other women dyed the threads every color of the rainbow. Finally the threads were woven into colorful silk scarves and skirts using large wooden contraptions. Afterwards we were escorted into a shop of all of their handmade products. Oh the colors! Rows and rows of silk scarfs, longyis (long wrap style skirts), and shirts filled the shelves. I was all to happy to buy a couple things to bring home. It was really cool to be able to buy products directly from the artisans that make them – this is a rare opportunity in a world where most products are factory made in some far away country. We also stopped at a place where they made clove cigarettes, silver, and paper parasols. It was really interesting to see how all of these products were made from beginning to end. At the end of the day we stopped at floating monastery, famous for its jumping cats. Although we didn’t see any cats jump (which was fine with me) the murals and statues were really beautiful. Around 2pm we headed back towards the shore. We passed by several leg rowers, moss covered stupas, floating gardens, women washing their clothes in the river, children splashing and giggling. An hour later we pulled up to shore. As we got climbed out of the boat Travis and I noticed something at the exact same time – neither of us were wearing shoes. We had left them at the monastery way out in the middle of the lake. To make matters worse, we were leaving the following morning at 4:30am. Our driver, Myo, graciously agreed to go back and get them for us. He showed up at our hotel two hours later with shoes in hand. The next morning we woke up when it was still dark to catch our bus. The owner of our hotel woke up with us to open the gate. As we got in the taxi she handed us two small packages – two small paper lanterns as a gift and two breakfasts-to-go. It made me think of my mom fussing over me before I leave on a trip. Needless to say, I was floored by the kindness of these people.

Check out Travis’s pics at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject

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15th November 2011

Inle Lake!
Jeff and I went to the same exact three "factories" on Inle Lake when we were there... Isn't Burma beautiful!? We LOVED Burma and I'm so glad you guys are getting to experience some of the world's kindest people and most beautiful culture. I love reading your comments and seeing your photos--thank you for revitalizing some of my favorite memories!
23rd November 2011

no shoes
Nyaungshwe is stunning! I would have enjoyed traveling by boat. The people keep busy making a living; I agree with you that observing first hand the making and marketing of their goods is a great way to witness true craftsmanship and artistry. I hope you come back inspired to take up more handicrafts and buy local. Your pictures are gorgeous; I'm missing you two esp. when I see your faces on screen. Be careful and remember to smile and say thank you! I don't envy the toilet situation for any tourist but is this what the citizens of the country deal with daily? We are so spoiled and sheltered!! Love you, mom Let us skype; I will set a clock to make sure we are on together. We are here for Thanksgiving - even Neil; happy Thanksgiving!!

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